23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time ©
For what man knows God’s Counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord Intends… scarce do we guess the things on earth … but when things are in Heaven, who can search them out? Wisdom 9:13
These words from The Book of Wisdom – who can conceive what the Lord Intends – are certainly borne out when we read in today’s Gospel, a saying of Jesus that is clearly not easy to understand:
If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wifeand children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Indeed, the words of Jesus are often complex, sometimes obscure, and not easy to interpret, and Wisdom teaches us that we should expect this since His words concern “things related to Heaven.” Is it not crucial then that we should have an official interpreter to help us avoid possible misunderstandings and errors that can be harmful to our faith, if not to our salvation. We Christians definitely need sure guidance to properly understand the Sacred Scripture, and it is precisely here that we see the critical role of the official teacher, of the divine guidance given through the Church to help us understand “what the Lord intends” in His often difficult words.
For instance, are we literally supposed to “hate” our parents as a condition for being his disciple? Or are we all literally required to renounce and abandon all ownership of property as a condition for true discipleship? Historically there have been small splinter groups within Christianity who, having rejected the teaching authority of the Church, came to believe that all Christians must literally renounce all their property to be Jesus’ disciples, that is, to be among the saved. Other such sects from the earliest days claimed that marriage too must be renounced by all. Their way of life was ironically self-destructive and they passed into history. The Church, whose authority they rejected, interpreted the Scriptures quite differently, and she continues to exist to proclaim her teaching. The Church is often accused of being too restrictive in her teaching of Christ’s Gospel and its requirements, but how often her interpretations of Scripture are far less harsh and restrictive than that of groups who reject her authority in these matters.
What then has the Church taught us about the meaning of Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel? First of all, she teaches us that the words of Jesus cannot be understood in a simplistic way, out of the context of his full teaching, out of the context of His own people’s literary styles or way of writing, etc. Moreover the Church sees these words not simply as human wisdom, but as expressing God’s wisdom, and she warns us, just like the Book of Wisdom does, that these hard sayings of Jesus are not always transparent in their meaning. There are, literally, layers of meaning in many of Jesus sayings, and multiple applications, and thus we must not treat these words as if they were immediately transparent in their meaning and implications, like our human words. They require great caution, study and prayer, and they also require the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the intermediary assistance of the Church’s teaching authority to whom Christ entrusted these words and their official proclamation.
What then has the Church taught down through the centuries related to these words, both in her written words and in the way she herself has created ways of life based upon their true meaning?
First of all, it is clear that Jesus intends these words to have a variety of applications in His church. Then she teaches us that the words about abandoning (hating) our relatives to be his disciple can never contradict the 4th commandment, and the natural obligations to love our parents and relatives. What this does mean, for all his disciples, is that we must absolutely love Jesus more than anyone else, including those naturally closest to us in this world, that our relationship and duties to Christ must be absolute, and must surpass the natural bonds of love in this world. In short, Jesus is repeating here the law that we must love God above all things, and is applying that law to himself. He uses the word “hate” not literally but simply as a form literary hyperbole, common in his day’s literary culture, only to stress the absoluteness of this demand for fidelity to God.
However, at another level, the Church understands these words as applying in a unique and more radical way to those called to be Jesus co-workers, and in the first place the Apostles. Jesus spoke one way to the crowds, but often in a more demanding way to his chosen 12. To be his co-workers in the vineyard, they must literally leave behind all these human relationships, and adopt the celibate and dispossessed way of life of Jesus Himself. All are to love Jesus more than anyone else, place Jesus above all others, but those who share his mission most directly are to live this total commitment in a more radical way in this world. Their manner of life is to imitate Christ’s more literally, and thus to be a witness and reminder to all of the radical commitment of Christian faith that is the foundation of all discipleship
Again the examples used by Jesus for prudence in adopting his radical way of life would seem to be aimed at the Apostles above all – those who would follow him in this radical sense are to make sure they have the personal resources to persevere in their special calling to celibate life, or they place their salvation in jeopardy, as the tower builder could lose his honor, or the king lose his kingdom. More is required for this particular total commitment to Jesus necessary for full apostleship than is required for the total commitment to discipleship for everyone. The former have to carefully reflect on whether they are really being called to this radical life style by God, or whether their natural bonds are such and their conditions of life are such that prudence would suggest God is not calling them to this radical abandonment of everything in this world.
The same kind of analysis can be applied to Jesus’ final words about renouncing all one’s possessions to be a disciple. All disciples are called to place Christ absolutely above their possessions and even their life. But there is once again a radical application of this teaching, and it applies to those who would adopt Christ’s lifestyle literally in order to serve His church as a total way of life. Francis is the great example of this radical poverty, yet Francis never suggested that his total poverty was a condition of discipleship or salvation for all. His way of life was tied to his apostolic mission in the world, and it was a radical sign of the Church’s total commitment to Christ, which must be true of all disciples.
You cannot be a disciple of Christ if you value your worldly goods above Christ, if you refuse to accept the Cross in your life, or if you love anyone more than you love Christ. All this commitment applies to all. On another level, you cannot be his Apostle or a member of a community whose whole way of life is totally dedicated to the service of the Gospel and His Church, that is, without literally abandoning everything to follow Christ. This radical way of life is not the only path to heaven and the perfection of holiness, but it serves to remind the whole Church of the radicalness of the personal choice to follow Christ, regardless of one’s state of life. That choice will be lived out in different ways, but it remains always a call to put Christ first and above all other things, including family, wealth or even one’s own personal well-being.
In the final analysis, then, it is the interior detachment from this world and the interior total commitment to Christ that makes one Christ’s disciple and produce holiness in every saint. That total commitment will be lived differently according to one’s particular vocation and state of life, but it is never the mere external renunciation of persons or things that makes one a disciple or make one holy. If Francis had merely renounced his material goods but remained attached to them in his heart more than to Christ, he would not have been a saint. On the other hand, when the lay person lives with his possessions in such detachment that Christ is absolutely the center of his or her life, that is, when the laity follow Paul’s injunction to treat their possessions as not their own, but His, (1Cor,7:30) then they acquire the holiness of God by their interior devotion to Christ as it is lived out in their daily state of life. So we can say that all must interiorly, intentionally renounce their possessions if they are to be disciples, all must live in the poverty of spirit. Some, however, are called in addition to quite literally reject having a spouse and family and to reject all ownership in witness to the radicalness of the Christian commitment to Christ that all must in their own way in the world, to live quite truly as if they owned nothing but Heaven.